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Colombia Launches Rescue Mission for Kidnapped Foreign Tourists - 2003-09-15

Colombian authorities have mounted an extensive search-and-rescue mission on the slopes of the imposing Sierra Nevada mountain, where suspected rebels kidnapped eight foreign tourists last week.

The kidnap victims include four Israelis, two Britons, a German and a Spaniard. They were abducted Friday night, as they slept in rustic cabins in the tropical forest. A second group of foreigners sleeping at the same camp was left behind, apparently because they did not have sturdy boots to hike in.

This second group provided vivid accounts of the ordeal. They said gunmen wearing uniforms had descended on the area, tying up hostages and booby-trapping a cabin door. Then they split open the hikers' bags, stealing cameras and passports.

The gunmen did not identify themselves, but military officials say they were probably members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, who are known to roam the mountainside. The FARC is known to be holding a former presidential candidate and three U.S. defense contractors.

The hikers had stopped at the cabins on their way to the "Ciudad Perdida," or Lost City, a terraced archeological site abandoned by the ancient Tayrona Indian tribe. Their location was so remote, it took survivors two days to reach the nearest town and alert authorities.

The number of kidnappings has been declining slightly in Colombia, although this Andean country is still the kidnapping capital of the world. There are nearly three-thousand kidnappings a year in Colombia, and most of them end in hefty ransom payments. Foreigners are assumed to be wealthier than locals, and are a prized catch.